Fenian Amnesty Riot in Stockton

Fenian Amnesty Riot in Stockton

In the latter part of 19th Century there was a great deal of unrest in Ireland.

The famine of 1845 and the after effects had seriously depleted the population, with almost a million dying of starvation or disease and a further million emigrating to the USA, England and Scotland –  a drop of about 25% of the number.  The absent English landlords saw an opportunity to get rid of unwanted tenants and many were driven from their homes.  In 1858 a secret organisation calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded to press for an independent Ireland. At about the same time in the United States, John Mahoney, a known agitator for Irish freedom, was organising a similar society, known as the Fenian Brotherhood.   Both organisations were committed to establishing an Ireland free from British rule.  The term ‘Fenian’ soon became synonymous with the taking up of arms against the British oppressor and the group became a threat to the British Establishment.

In 11 September 1867, two Irish Americans were stopped by Police in Manchester for acting suspiciously outside of a jeweller’s shop in  in Shudehill.  The pair were initially charged under the Vagrancy Act – but intelligence from the Irish Police soon established them to be  two of the leaders of the Fenian Brotherhood, Thomas J Kelly and Timothy Deasy – both wanted for their part in the failed uprising earlier that year.   The pair were arrested and, after a week in custody, were transported by horse drawn police wagon to Belle Vue Gaol.

By this time other Fenian supporters had got wind of the arrests and a plot was hatched to free the prisoners.  About 30 or 40 Fenian sympathisers attacked the police wagon on its way to the gaol, successfully freeing the pair who escaped and were never recaptured.  In the course of the attack a police sergeant,  Charles Brett who was inside the wagon, was accidentally shot and killed when a bullet was fired at the lock of the wagon door just as he peered through the keyhole to see what was happening outside. The bullet went through his eye and into his brain, killing him instantly.

The police scoured the Irish districts of Manchester in search of the ringleaders.  At that time about 10% of Manchester’s population were of Irish descent and many were arrested and brought before the magistrate’s in what was known as the ‘reign of terror’.  Eventually five men were charged and found guilty of the murder of the police sergeant.  These were William Allen, Michael Larkin, Michael O’Brien, Thomas Maguire, and Edward O’Meagher Condon.  O’Meagher Condon, being an American citizen, had his sentence commuted and Thomas Maguire was pardoned after the evidence against him was found to be totally unreliable.   As the same witnesses had testified against all five it was hoped that all of them would be freed but the authorities decided to make an example of the remaining three.

They were publicly executed on 22 November 1867 outside Salford Prison, the last multiple public execution held in Britain.  The crowds were estimated to be about 10,000 strong and so great was the fear of an Irish backlash that more than 2,500 police officers, men of the 72nd Highland regiment and a squadron of Hussars were called in to keep order.

The execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, as the three came to be known, provided a fertile recruiting ground for the Fenian movement with many already disaffected Irishmen and women rallying to the cause, especially when it became known that the three had been denied a Christian burial by a callous  British Government.

The British authorities soon had more than 100 Fenians in jail for various crimes against the state and it became apparent that these men were being kept in horrendous conditions and were being singled out for ill-treatment.  This caused a great deal of anti-British sentiment among the Irish communities in England and in Ireland itself.   In 1868, in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of the Fenian prisoners, an organisation called the Amnesty Association was formed in Dublin to campaign on their behalf.

The movement initially held rallies across Ireland to drum up support for its cause but soon moved to mainland Britain, holding meetings and rallies among the Irish Communities in the industrial towns and cities of the North.

On Sunday 15 December 1872, Stockton-on-Tees, with its large Irish population, was the chosen site of a major rally.  It rained throughout the day but by 2 pm about 2,000 Fenian sympathisers had gathered in the Market Square to listen to the speakers.  The Amnesty movement had loose affiliations with socialist organisations in the area which swelled the numbers but large numbers of Irishmen who had travelled from West Hartlepool, South Bank, Eston, Normanby, Spennymoor and Castle Eden added to the throng.  They had brought their own banners and flags and were led up the High Street by a Fife and Drum band to assemble at the Market Cross.

It was reported at the time that as many as 10,000 local people had turned out to watch the proceedings, although it has to be said that the organisation had little support  outside of the Irish communities and the locals were not happy at the prospect of a political rally being held in their town on a Sunday. The High Street was packed with people when the first speaker rose to speak – this was meant to be Mr Joseph Shepherd of the Cleveland Miners Association but as he had failed to turn up, Joseph Johnson, a Newsagent from Middlesbrough was persuaded to chair the meeting.  The chair being the top step of the Market Cross.

The speakers shared common themes:  The injustice meted out to the Fenian supporters in British jails and the call to have these men treated as Political Prisoners rather than criminals.  Mr John Walsh of Middlesbrough drew attention to the torture of two men in particular, Rossa and Redding, declaring it to be ‘unparalleled in the annals of vindictive punishment and that the English Government, of all parties,was the most unprincipled and  unscrupulous in the world‘.

Throughout the meeting, missiles had been thrown at the speakers and a number of young Stockton men were amusing themselves by pushing into the crowd of Irish supporters and generally causing disruption. Tempers frayed and a number of fights broke out among the crowd on the west side of the High Street.  In an attempt to calm things down the Mayor appeared at the window of the Town Hall and made what looked like an attempt to read the Riot Act although the commotion in the street drowned out his voice.

It was at this time that Superintendant Booth, supported by forty police officers, forced his way between the opposing forces and told the organisers to wind up the meeting.  This they duly did, with hurried thanks to the chairman and speakers being proposed, the meeting was brought to an end.  The Irish banners and flags were unfurled once again as the procession prepared to leave.  They set off down the High Street to the tune of ‘God Save Ireland’ in an orderly manner but had not reached the Shambles before they were set upon by what the ‘Illustrated Police News‘ of 28 December 1872 described as ‘Young Stockton‘ who ‘like the Egyptians of old, attacked in the rear‘.  The procession soon dissolved into a retreat.

The banners and flags became targets for the young men of Stockton who bore down upon the bearers and wrested their standards from them.  A number of the banners had been brought across from Ireland for the occasion and  were very elaborate in their orange, gold and green silks.  Attractive though they were, the banners were soon dragged through the mud and torn apart – the remnants being taken as prized souvenirs by the perpetrators.  The Fenian supporters alarmed by the boldness of their aggressors, and those who had joined the chase just to see the fun, fled in panic.

Thirteen men were arrested during  the fighting along the High Street and in Bridge Road.  These were named as Seth Reece (for assaulting PC Patterson), James Lennon, Peter McGuire, Thomas Feheeley, Andrew Hartigan, John Wilmore, Frederick Durkin, John McGee, John McCasey, Cornelius Mahoney, Thomas Coyne and James Boyd.

While this was going on further fighting was taking place in the streets and alleys next to the High Street so telegrams were sent to the police forces of Middlesbrough, Darlington and West Hartlepool requesting urgent assistance.  The Middlesbrough men were the first to get there and arrived in dramatic style with cutlasses drawn – although there are no reports of them being used in anger.

By the time the Darlington and Hartlepool men arrived the situation was just about under control although a number of Stockton men had followed the Fenian supporters to South Stockton (Thornaby) railway station where a pistol was fired and knives were produced but the police were able to separate the combatants and no blood was shed.

The fighting carried on sporadically throughout the afternoon with several arrests for breaches of the peace.  The most serious incident occurred when someone, thought to be one of the organisers of the meeting, charged down the High Street on horseback and, on reaching the bottom of Bridge Road, rode into a group of people near the stone bridge.  He was dragged from his mount and was about to be thrown into the Tees when Superintendant Booth rescued the situation by liberating the man from his captors and letting him go.  He remounted his horse and set off over the bridge in the same mad way, knocking several people down on the south side of the bridge, severely injuring a young man called Morton who was the son of the hairdresser in Bishop Street.  The crowd again managed to stop the horse but this time the rider was arrested and taken into custody.

By six o’clock the police had given notice to all of the public houses and hotels in the district to keep their establishments closed during the evening.  This had the effect of dispersing the crowd and by early evening order had been restored in the High Street.  Special police patrols could be seen on the streets until late in the evening, especially in the Portrack area where it was thought that trouble might break out between the large Irish community and the Welsh who lived there.

The police were commended for the restraint they had shown during the afternoon and the way in which they handled what could have turned into a very ugly situation.  The people of Stockton were also given credit for returning quietly to their homes at the end of the fray.  It was suggested that the Amnesty Association might want to choose another day for any subsequent events in Stockton as the population obviously took exception to having their Sabbath disturbed by the flag waving multitude…

We are grateful to Gale-Cengage Learning for granting permission for the use of the material in this article which was taken from the Illustrated Police News, part of their 19th Century Newspapers online resource collection.